It grows food in sand, powers homes with the sun and this year launches the world's first city-wide electric car system. So how has war-torn Israel become such an eco-pioneer?
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
By Matthew Kalman
BY THE end of this year the world’s first all-electric car network will be up and running in one of the most unlikely settings. The cars built by Renault-Nissan need a network of re-charging points and battery changing stations and these are being set up in Denmark, Hawaii, California, Canada and Australia.
But the first place to host a national electric car network will be one that has almost permanently been at war with its neighbours since its inception. This is Israel, which invented the original technology and is home to Better Place, the company that came up with the idea.
“Israel will be the fi rst country in the world with this new technology. Jerusalem will be the fi rst city,” says Better Place boss Shai Agassi, who recently unveiled Israel’s first car charging points. The car looks like a regular Renault Megane except it has no exhaust pipe and an electric socket where the petrol cap should be. It drives noticeably quieter than a regular car and powered by a 450lb lithium-ion battery it can run for about 140 miles without re-charging, compared with 300 miles for the average family car on a full tank of petrol.
Drivers will plug in their cars to recharge for several hours at home, work or at designated free car parks throughout the country. Or they will swap empty batteries for fully-charged ones at a network of up to 200 “swap stations” throughout Israel. The electricity for the cars will come from solar technology being developed in the desert in southern Israel. Amid the gunfire this tiny country the size of Wales and with a population of just under 7.5million leads the world in developing and exporting green technologies that could save the planet.
Ironically it is precisely because of its precarious position that such eco-inventions have flourished. Surrounded by hostile neighbours, with few natural resources of its own and two-thirds of its area inhos pitable desert, Israel has had to use its wits to survive. When Warren Buffett, the world’s wealthiest man, decided to make his first investment outside the United States, he chose Israel. “Some Amerircans have come to the Middle East looking for oil so they didn’t stop in Israel. We came to the Middle East looking for brains and we stopped in Israel,” Buffett explained as he put $4billion into Iscar, a precision tool maker.
“We found that the real trick in business is not to be a genius yourself but to go around associating with geniuses who are already doing a good job and stay out of their way.” Israeli innovations range from Intel microprocessors to messaging systems that ensure the safety of nearly all the world’s financial transactions. Micro soft Intel, IBM and NDS, a firm that designs TV set-top boxes to unscramble cable and satellite signals, all have research and development centres in Israel drawing on the brainpower of those “genius”.
There are more than 1,000 clean-technology start-up companies in Israel, a country that has attracted more foreign investment in high-tech businesses in the past decade than all of Europe. It has more companies quoted on the high-tech NASDAQ stock exchange in New York than any other country outside the United States. In innovation it outshines all its neighbours. Between 1980 and 2000 Egyptians registered 77 patents in the US. Saudis registered 171. Israelis registered 7,652.
“We are flexible and we are smart because we know that we have to be to survive,” says Shraga Brosh, chairman of the Israeli Manufacturers’ Association. A primary motor of this technical innovation is the Israeli army. Its units cream off the top teenagers, ram them through accelerated university training and give them sophisticated military assignments. Agassi of Better Place, like the founders of computer security pioneers Check-point, demobbed from Unit 8200, a top-secret division of military intelligence where every other soldier is a computer whiz-kid.
TALPIOT, another military programme veiled in secrecy, whips its high-achieving teenagers through electronics, engineering or physics degrees before setting them up in state-of-the-art laboratories to build next-generation defence solutions. “The ingenuity in technology is tremendous. Israel is a fountain of knowledge,” says Avishay Braverman, an Israeli cabinet minister and former World Bank economist.
“The reason for the success in high-tech industry is that the army invested so much in research. Where else do you have men and women operating the most sophisticated computers in the world at such a young age?” The ingenuity and training is mixed with a need to solve Israel’s problems due to its geography and political isolation. Its main water sources are controlled by its enemies Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The land is sandy and infertile. “Israel has become a world power in terms of green technology because of our long experience in dealing with scarcity,” says Jon Medved, head of the pioneering video ringtone company Vringo and an investor in Israeli clean technology companies. “ We’ve created these technologies to solve problems that are acute here.”
Israel and experts such as Dov Pasternak lead the world in countering the creeping desertifi cation that has made large swathes of Africa and Asia uninhabitable. Satellite photographs show that only two countries have increased the area of land covered by forest and agriculture – the United States and Israel. Israeli farmers revolutionised the watering of agricultural crops more than 40 years ago through the drip irrigation system which has since been adopted worldwide.
Water is carried directly to the roots of the plant through tiny holes in small tubes that can be easily redeployed according to need. The system is set on a timer, reducing evaporation and eliminating run-off. Because the water is delivered direct to the roots of the crop there is less moisture on the leaves and surrounding soil, suppressing mould and weeds. That reduces the need for chemicals and pesticides.
Netafim, which markets the technology, says it is now used in more than 110 countries and has helped create self-sustaining agricultural communities in drought-stricken areas, particularly in Africa. Israel now recycles 70 per cent of its waste water – a huge amount that puts it way ahead of any other country. The water is used for agriculture, waste management and for fi sh farms in the desert.
Israel is also a pioneer in geothermal and solar energy. The world’s leading company in geothermal power – harnessing Earth’s heat to generate electricity – is Ormat, an Israeli company. For decades visitors to Israel have been struck by the solar heating panels and water tanks on the top of almost every building. These provide solar-heated water to just about every home and business.
Now Israel is leading the way in a new technology that harnesses solar power for clean electricity production. One company, Solel, was snapped up by the German industrial giant Siemens last year for more than $400million. It is competing with Brightsource, another Israeli company, for contracts to supply more than two million homes in California with electricity produced without any fossil fuels.
But Israeli ingenuity in electricity is not limited to the sun. Innowattech is developing a system to generate electricity from the pressure of traffic driving along roads. Piezo-electric generators are installed inches beneath the upper layer of asphalt and convert the mechanical energy of traffic passing over them into electrical energy.
INNOWATTECH estimates that its generators placed along a half-mile stretch of a four-lane motorway would produce about 1MWh of electricity – enough to power 2,500 households. It is testing prototypes for roads, railways, pedestrian walkways and airport runways – all of which could generate completely clean electricity.
Before too long it will be possible to drive an electric car powered by a battery whose electricity was generated by the sun or by other cars driving across sub-surface generator, and whose engine is cooled by recycled water.
But only in Israel.